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In Defense of the Electoral College (sort of)

July 29, 2019
In Defense of the Electoral College (sort of)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

1. Electoral College

Richard North Patterson has a great piece up today about how, in 2020, the Electoral College is, in a sense, incentivizing Trump’s racism.

Here’s RNP:

Trump sees his racial provocations as strategic. Notes the Atlantic: “[I]nstead of campaigning on his administration’s signature achievements — cutting regulation, appointing conservative judges, presiding over steady economic growth — [Trump] seems intent on reprising his 2016 run, a campaign largely built on fear, resentment and division.”Ironically, his malign electoral incentives are embedded in our most revered foundational document: the Constitution. Explains The New Yorker: “To restate the obvious: the president is unpopular. Despite this… he’s concentrating on turning out his base of disaffected white voters, particularly those living in the Midwestern states that tipped the Electoral College his way.” In the New York Times, Nate Cohn amplified Trump’s electoral calculus — given his advantage in the Electoral College, Cohn estimates, he “could win while losing the national [popular] vote by as much as five percentage points.”

Read the whole thing. There’s a lot in there and it’s all very interesting.

But there are two follow-on points that I think are worth making.

The first is that it didn’t have to be this way. Trump supporters like to say that Trump was the only candidate in 2016 who could have beaten Hillary Clinton.

This seems very wrong to me.

I’m open to the idea that Trump is the only candidate who could have beaten Hillary Clinton in the way he did: Which is to say, lose the popular vote and then win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

2016 presented two electoral pathways for Republicans. The first was to become a white-identity party and try to win a narrow EC victory by flipping industrial Midwestern states. That’s what Trump did.

The other pathway was to become a majority party. If someone else had been the nominee—Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, take your pick—the likely EC map would have had Democrats holding Pennsylvania and Michigan and Republicans taking Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada.

At which point the party is set to try to expand the map further in 2020 and integrate even more groups into their coalition.

As it is, the party is now mortgaged to white identity politics and has no real pathway forward except to hope that Trump draws a radical challenger and then hold on for dear life.

The second thing I wanted to say about the Electoral College is that it is an under-appreciated aspect of our republican system.

Because people are generally garbage—that’s just a fact; science—direct democracy should be mediated at every possible juncture.

The EC does that. But it does a lot more. It essentially enforces a two-party system by not allowing third parties to gain any purchase unless they can win entire states. This has the effect of taking every policy dispute and having it sorted in a binary way by the two parties.

Are there downsides to this? Sure.

But there are very real upsides, too. A parliamentary system with dozens of parties is fine for smaller countries. The smaller the political system, the more nimble it can be.

But America has 330 million people in it. Our government handles like an aircraft carrier. Which means that our political system should have as many hedges built into it as possible. We want issues to be digested slowly by our political parties.

So two cheers for the Electoral College. The problem we face today isn’t the EC. It’s the GOP.

2. Against Single-Issue Voting

Nick Frankovich has a deeply smart piece in Human Life Review about why single-issue voting is a bad idea for everyone:

A frequent objection to single-mindedness on the part of pro-life voters is that laws will be respected and enforced only to the degree that the public accepts them as reasonable and just. Of course, abortion policies that reflect a slightly more pro-life attitude than is supported by public opinion can serve a teaching function, nudging us toward greater respect for the unborn child, but they’re liable to provoke us to bolt in the opposite direction if they run too far ahead of where we are now. Some pro-life advocates fear that the Alabama bill banning abortion even in cases of rape or incest will prove to be counterproductive, pushing fence-sitters toward the side of unlimited abortion rights. If they have to choose between that and an outright abortion ban, many will take the former—and will be inclined to regard subsequent initiatives from the pro-life camp more warily.Still, unpopular anti-abortion legislation could serve the pro-life cause even in the long run, if law enforcement can be trusted to enforce it. An increase in restrictions on abortion would not only save the lives of some unborn children now but would also establish facts on the ground—a baseline of societal norms to which most people would, in time, conform their ideas about the relative injustice of abortion. Initially, people would resent laws that they considered too severe, but they would get used to them, or their children would, or their grandchildren. That’s the theory, anyway. The risk is that, instead of subsiding, the popular resentment will persist and then grow.

Forcing an unpopular law on the public is a defensible tactic, then, but a questionable strategy. What may be good for the pro-life movement in Alabama in 2019 may be bad for it in America in the long run. Here we begin to recognize the limitations of single-issue voting.

How harmful to the pro-life movement in the long run is a political candidate who promises anti-abortion policies but makes no effort to persuade, or who in his rhetoric and behavior models attitudes that clash with the effort to build a culture in which people are encouraged to feel tenderness for unborn children? The relationship between the single-issue pro-life voter and the candidate who makes promises to him is asymmetrical. The candidate represents a bundle of ideas, causes, and sentiments. He promises to promote the sliver of those that are dear to pro-lifers, but in return he expects their vote for the whole package, his candidacy and the totality of what it represents.

Read the whole thing.

3. Kill the Retweet

This is a very interesting discussion in Buzzfeed about how to fix part of social media.

Developer Chris Wetherell built Twitter’s retweet button. And he regrets what he did to this day.

“We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon,” Wetherell recalled thinking as he watched the first Twitter mob use the tool he created. “That’s what I think we actually did.”

Wetherell, a veteran tech developer, led the Twitter team that built the retweet button in 2009. The button is now a fundamental feature of the platform, and has been for a decade — to the point of innocuousness. But as Wetherell, now cofounder of a yet-unannounced startup, made clear in a candid interview, it’s time to fix it. Because social media is broken. And the retweet is a big reason why.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.